a review by Nalini Haynes
Carnival of Secrets is a young adult novel by Melissa Marr. Aya is a female daimon in the ruling caste in a city of daimons; unless she wins or dies in a tournament to the death, Aya will be kept at home for breeding and child raising. Aya fears that future, so she fights in the tournament, coping with the political ramifications. Kaleb is a cur – low caste daimon – who fights for survival, for respect in a caste-based society where he’s been homeless and had to whore himself to pay for life’s necessities. Mallory is a 17 year old girl living in our world, parallel to the daimon world, with a witch for a step-father. Zeb is Kaleb’s ‘pack’ and closest friend.
Melissa Marr has built a detailed world with layers of conflict, both personal and political, spanning Earth and the daimon City. The social structure of the daimon world unfolds gradually; there is no expository dump of information. The constraints of the social structures are relatable to contemporary society. Mallory is programmed to ‘be a good daughter’. Aya’s family have all died so she doesn’t have those particular constraints but society’s mores and laws are nonetheless binding, necessitating Aya walking a knife’s edge in her attempts to escape society’s expectations alongside her hopes for changing her world for the better.
In some ways even more confronting than Marr’s exploration of the women’s roles are the issues of homelessness and ambiguous sexuality explored via Kaleb and Zeb. Both are ‘curs’ because they had no parents, biological or otherwise. Kaleb grew up in the streets of the daimon city as any street urchin might in any city you care to name, by doing anything he could to survive, including prostitution.
While Marr avoids graphic details, the implications are clear – homeless boys become prey to all kinds of harm. As Kaleb rises in the ranks of the tournament to the death, he’s offered considerable sums to prostitute himself to a woman who probably wants to breed with him, but earlier – when he wasn’t as desirable due to conquest – his clients weren’t necessarily women. It’s also clear that Zeb, who grew up outside the city and struggles with city life even now, has turned to prostitution to survive.
Kaleb and Zeb’s relationship is ambiguous; at first I wasn’t sure if they were ‘brothers’ or lovers, then it appeared the latter was the case, especially with comments made about Zeb being Kaleb’s bitch. As Kaleb’s interest in Mallory grew, Marr appeared to be reframing Kaleb and Zeb’s relationship. This relationship and daimon attitudes towards acceptance of prostitution may be confronting, but it’s balanced with mention of ‘wives’ and ‘breeding mates’, emphasising different attitudes. Probably the most confronting scene in the entire novel was the wedding scene, which again emphasised the gulf between human and daimon society.
Told from the perspective of the young adults, Carnival of Secrets manages to explore issues effectively without preaching. I applaud Marr’s courageous and effective exploration of social justice issues including feminism and homelessness. Forget the target audience of ’14+’; I really enjoyed this story. My only complaint is the end left me hanging, waiting for the next instalment.